I was once told anything over 1.366 miles was a waste of asphalt. That’s especially true this weekend when the famed Darlington Raceway returns with a time honored tradition of the Labor Day classic known by many names Rebel 500 in the past but more recently known and time honored by NASCAR fans as the Southern 500.

In 2003 NASCAR in the midst of losing long time sponsor of the sport Winston announced a schedule realignment that would move the Labor Day race from Darlington which has run there since 1950 to a newer Auto Club Speedway.

"I feel for our race fans, the folks who buy tickets, and I also want to be a good community citizen," said Darlington president Andrew Gurtis. "But the truth of the matter is, twice a year the NASCAR world is going to descend on Darlington Raceway."

Over the years that followed the move California hosted several of the Labor Day races while Darlington bounced dates around late spring to early summer until 2008 when NASCAR announced Auto Club Speedway would lose the date.  Following the announcement and lacking ticket sales at Auto Club over the years the track was reduced down to one event weekend per year. This time Atlanta would get their chance to host the traditional weekend event.

"Fans have been clamoring for a Sprint Cup Series race under the lights at Atlanta Motor Speedway," said AMS president and general manager Ed Clark. "It's thrilling to bring Labor Day racing back to the south on NASCAR's fastest track. This will be a great opportunity for Atlanta Motor Speedway to celebrate our 50th year of racing."

Late in the 2014 season while speaking to the media Burton Smith chairman of Speedway Motorsports announced a change in the dates for his track Bristol Motor Speedway that would move the date with better weather let slip that part of the deal would see what fans wanted for nearly a dozen years, the return of the Southern 500 on Labor Day at Darlington Raceway.

"I think we did them a favor and they did us one," Smith said. "I think they kind of needed that Southern 500 thing back in Darlington. So going back there, I thought that was a good thing."

When Chip Wile the President of Darlington Raceway bought the news of the return it was as Christmas had come early to the NASCAR fans. Social media exploded in the hours and days following the announcements commending both NASCAR and the track for working together to bring the race back to where it belonged.

“This is a true example of Darlington Raceway, ISC and NASCAR all working together to give fans what they have wanted for many years – the tradition of stock car racing on Labor Day weekend at the Lady in Black,” said track President Chip Wile. “We can’t thank our leaders at ISC and NASCAR enough for working with us to bring back such a historic date on the 2015 NASCAR calendar.”

Now here we are nearly a year after the announcement and just days away from the running of the 65th Southern 500, everyone from NASCAR, teams, sponsors, and even International Speedway are marketing this as a homecoming game. Teams are going all in with throwback themes on cars honoring past drivers and sponsors who have graced the sport or taken the checkered flag at Darlington. NBC Sports are bringing in Ned Jarrett, Ken Squier, and Dale Jarrett to call part of the race live on national television for some old school flair.

Many of these marketing efforts thanks for Daryl Wolfe who heads up track owner International Speedway marketing department going full in to make this one of NASCAR’s biggest homecomings to date.

At the end of the weekend the fans are seeing history in the making with NASCAR giving the fans exactly what they have asked for over the past 12 years since the removal of the Labor Day weekend event. Teams are bringing some of the history of the sport and honoring the past with the schemes they will run all weekend.

Qualifying for Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 will take place on Saturday September 5th at 1:45pm and Sunday night tradition returns for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 to the track Too Tough to Tame with NBCSN taking to the air at 7:00pm with green flag set just after 7:20pm, 367 laps(501.3 miles) will make the distance.

A back flip and a sandwich is what Carl Edwards will have after the Coca-Cola 600. After pitting on a caution with 60 laps left in NASCAR’s longest race, the newest driver at Joe Gibbs Racing was able to save enough fuel to win his 24th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.

Edwards held off former Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle after leaders Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex, Jr., amongst others, headed to pit road within the last 35 laps. In doing so, the Missouri native has scored his first triumph with Joe Gibbs Racing after recording one top 10 in his first 11 races in the No. 19 Toyota. The victory marks Gibbs’ 117th win in the Cup Series, and gives Edwards a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Truex, who led a race-high 131 laps, which is the fifth largest amount of laps led in his career, finished fifth at Charlotte. The Furniture Row Racing team was in position to contend with Hamlin for the win, but after the final pit stop, he was a lap behind Edwards. However, he continues to sit second in points with 11 top 10s in 12 races.

Hamlin had to be sent to the infield medical center following the race after experiencing a migraine headache in the late stages of the race. After short pitting due to a loose wheel, he finished eighth on an evening where he led 53 laps.

Rounding out the top five were Dale Earnhardt, Jr., pole sitter Matt Kenseth and Truex.

Kyle Busch made his return to the Cup Series during the All-Star Race last weekend, but the Coca-Cola 600 was his first time back in a points-paying event. Busch ran inside of the top 15 early on, but struggled with a loose condition. As the race continued, he moved into the top 10, and evidently cracked the top five – running as high as second during the 600-mile race. He finished 11th, which is considered a victory as he told reporters following the race that he experienced no pain throughout the race.

Jimmie Johnson spun twice during the race. Getting lucky on his first spin – similar to Kansas – he was headed back to the front of the pack. However, on Lap 273, the No. 48 car got loose coming off Turn 4, and hit the SAFER Barrier entering pit road. Johnson finished 40th, 30 laps down.

“We came in with an aggressive mindset to bring an aggressive set-up in the car, drive aggressively and take chances,” Johnson said after the second incident. “We just don’t have anything to lose. Unfortunately, we didn’t get long enough into the race for the aggressive set-up to come into play. Another 30/40 laps we would have had the car right where we wanted it.  I just didn’t make it there.”

Running in his final Coca-Cola 600, Jeff Gordon flew in from Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon. Gordon drove the pace car in the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500, and finished 15th at Charlotte.

 

This NASCAR season has been everything but ordinary. Over the past three months, there have been multiple drivers to miss time due to medical issues, and teams have acted like they are in the MLB or NFL.

Trading drivers seems rather far-fetched, but that is what has occurred in the NASCAR world in 2015.

Following Kyle Busch’s hard wreck at Daytona, where he hit an area of the inside retaining wall that was not protected by the SAFER Barrier, the 29-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winner was sent to the hospital. With Busch being out for several months, and no announcement on when he will be back other than that it will be before the series returns to Daytona in July, Joe Gibbs Racing made a “trade” with Front Row Motorsports. Well, it would have been a trade, but the small Ford team ended up losing its top driver.

Two-time Camping World Truck Series champion Matt Crafton replaced Busch for the Daytona 500, and David Ragan has since piloted the No. 18 car. Meanwhile, Brian Vickers, who missed the first two races due to cardiovascular surgery over the off-season, returned to the seat of his Michael Waltrip Racing car at Las Vegas. Evidently, his blood clots returned, and after announcing he would be out for at least three months, MWR was forced to put rookie Brett Moffitt into the car.

Now, with Erik Jones set to take over the No. 18 Toyota for JGR until Busch’s return, Ragan is set to join MWR for the remainder of the season. If and when Vickers come back is still in question, but our Speedway Digest team takes a look at some key questions that have come up with all the announcements as of late in our first round table discussion.


1. David Ragan was announced as the driver of the No. 55 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing, replacing Brian Vickers for the remainder of the season. After earning one top 10 and an average finish of nearly 20th this season for Joe Gibbs Racing, what makes Ragan a hot commodity for this team?
                                    

Brett Winningham:  I see Ragan fitting in with the Michael Waltrip Racing team very well. Even though the finishes with the Joe Gibbs Racing team could have been better, I think he will perform just as well with MWR. The team has been off lately, earning only three top 10 finishes in 2015. With the addition of Ragan, it could potentially improve the team moving forward. It also allows Ragan a much better chance at making the Chase for the Sprint Cup if he can score a victory or record enough solid finishes to get into the Chase via points.

Steven Wilson: Ragan has been able to keep the car clean through the events he's run with JGR aside for an issue at Bristol. For one, it makes him look good to a team that is going to be able to give good information on what the car is doing and how to make it better with his many years behind the wheel. But most of all, he can bring the car home in one piece.

Joseph Wolkin: Ragan is a marketable driver. He was the face of AAA when he first came into the sport, and eventually did the same for UPS. Though he has had some struggles with Front Row Motorsports, the chance with Joe Gibbs Racing has shown that he is capable of running up front. His results don’t show it, but Ragan has proved thus far in 2015 that he can and will be a consistent driver once again.

Dustin Albino: Ragan has always been a solid talent behind the wheel of a racecar. Ever since he was with Roush Fenway Racing in his rookie year, he established himself as a threat to make the Chase. However, in 2012 when Ragan jumped into the No. 34, that wasn’t the best move at the time. But, it was the only ride available in the Cup Series. A big reason why Ragan landed the No. 18 ride following Kyle Busch’s injury is because he is more established and a true veteran of the sport.


2. With Ragan going to Michael Waltrip Racing, Vickers will need to find sponsorship if he is healthy before the end of the season. What does this indicate for Vickers' career?

Wilson: Vickers has had such an up and down past 18 months or so with his health coming back early this year for two events to have to get out the car the next week. With him being back on medications that will take him out the car for the foreseeable future, throwing in the recent announcement he will have to take a hard look at his abilities going forward. Will he be able to run 400-500 mile events? Do the rewards out-weigh the risks?

Albino: This is a real bummer for Vickers. The big question is will he be healthy? No one knows. The blood clots seem to be reoccurring very often. Vickers first has to put his health first. As hard as that may be, he needs to continue being smart about the way he approaches his life.

The fact that Aaron’s stuck behind Vickers through thick and thin, and now that Ragan is hopping in the No. 55 for the remaining of the 2015 season has to be eating Vickers alive. There is no telling where his career may go from here, but getting healthy is the number one priority.

Winningham:  At this point for Brian Vickers, I don’t see him returning to the No. 55 Toyota next year if he ends up sidelined for the rest of the season. The Michael Waltrip Racing team cannot afford to be effected by this week after week. When and if Vickers returns, it will be interesting to see how the situation will unfold.

Wolkin: This is a very difficult situation for everyone involved. Obviously, Waltrip’s team was trying to prevent this situation, but it appears Vickers’ career is in jeopardy with this latest health issue. The team needed a season-long replacement to give the sponsor a driver that is consistent behind the wheel, which puts Vickers out of a ride if he can come back before the end of the year.

If he can beat the odds and race again, which he seemingly will be able to do once doctors take him off Xarelto, it appears he will have to find sponsorship to run a third car for the team. Co-owner Rob Kauffman has put his company on the team’s cars before, and this is a situation where he probably would do so at least until the remainder of the season. However, he’s in a bit of a pickle if Ragan performs well, which would mean he could likely be a free agent once again.

3. Prior to his stint with Joe Gibbs Racing, Ragan was slated to run for Front Row Motorsports for the fourth straight season. What opportunities are presented to the Georgia native now that he has publicity on his side, along with a possible developing relationship with MWR's sponsor, Aaron's? 

Wolkin: This opportunity with MWR is gigantic for Ragan. Performing well, he can see himself in the No. 55 car in 2016, and possibly locking up a multi-year deal. However, if he struggles, Ragan could be sent back to a lower-tier team, such as Front Row Motorsports. This is his last big chance at getting a top ride in the Cup Series, and his future will be based on his performances. There are several drivers with expiring contracts this year, and if MWR opts to put another driver in the car for 2016, there should be some openings for him.

Albino: Ragan is now a veteran of the Sprint Cup Series, and he is able to have sponsors behind him, while previously driving the No. 34 the past three seasons, Front Row Motorsports didn’t have a primary sponsor to fund him. Now that he knows where he will be for the remaining of the 2015 season, it will be critical for the Georgia native to perform. He was also put in a tough situation by taking over the No. 18 for Kyle Busch. Erik Jones is the future of Joe Gibbs Racing, and team owner Joe Gibbs hinted that the young 18-year-old would be in the Cup Series soon following his first career NASCAR XFINITY Series win at Texas. However, Ragan is now granted an opportunity to drive for a sponsor in Aaron’s that is fully committed to Michael Waltrip and Michael Waltrip Racing. Ragan may have found himself a quality long-term ride.

Winningham: If David Ragan can build a relationship with the Michael Waltrip Racing organization, it would more than likely save his racing career. It would also be a huge confidence boost since he entered the 2015 season not knowing how many races he could run with Front Row Motorsports due to sponsorship issues. At the same time, if Ragan cannot produce for MWR, it could also hurt his racing career. 

Wilson: Other than being with JGR, giving him a shot to do some good things in a racecar was still a temporary spot for him not knowing when he would be out of the car and go back to Front Row Motorsports. This gives him one of his best shots to have the engineering and sponsorship money behind him with MWR and Toyota to back his effort for the remainder of 2015. This also is an opportunity for him to move into 2016 with a team that is better equipped to give him more wins in the Sprint Cup Series. Obviously, having long-time MWR sponsor Aaron's onboard gives him the path to continue with MWR if and when Vickers may return or if he doesn't, he will have a legitimate shot at keeping the seat with his knowledge and ability to bring a car home clean.

4. As Ragan departs Front Row Motorsports, the team is looking to replace him. Originally, he did not have funding to run the full season in the No. 34 car, but as of now - the team has run every race. Chris Buescher has been the main man behind the wheel, but what route should the team go after losing its lead driver?  

Albino: It will be interesting in the upcoming weeks to see what Front Row Motorsports decides to do with the No. 34 car. It seems as if the team is giving Roush Fenway Racing XFINITY Series driver Chris Buescher the go behind the wheel. He is a fellow Ford driver who has done a respectable job in his first four races behind the wheel with an average finish of 24.8. However, Bob Jenkins doesn’t want to go in the hole in regards to money, and without a primary sponsor on board, it will be hard to do. Giving young drivers an opportunity is always a good thing for the sport. However, is the driver up for the challenge? Maybe rotating a few younger drivers in that car for the remainder of the season is the way to go. But what if Vickers ended up in that ride? Only time will tell.

Wolkin:
Chris Buescher is the obvious choice for the races that his XFINITY Series ride does not conflict with the Cup Series schedule. If he runs more than seven events this year, he will not be eligible for the Rookie of the Year when he races full-time in the Cup Series (possibly as soon as next year or 2017). Expect Buescher and Brett Moffitt to split this ride, with an occasional shot for young drivers, such as Ryan Ellis, Ryan Reed, Darrell Wallace Jr. or another driver who is associated with Ford.

Winningham: The Front Row Motorsports organization should continue to field the No. 34 Ford with Chris Buescher. Since making his debut with the team earlier this year, Buescher has finished inside the top 30 in each of those starts. In his Sprint Cup Series debut at Auto Club Speedway, Buescher left the two-mile oval with a 20th-place finish. In his last start at the Bristol Motor Speedway, Buescher walked away with a 25th-place finish. Based on these results, I see Front Row continuing to field a Sprint Cup Series entry with the young driver.

Wilson: This puts Brett Moffitt, who's already been in the car for Front Row Motorsports, in a position to be in a more stable seat week in and week out if he is given the opportunity. MWR would obviously like to keep Moffitt, but the lack of sponsorship to fund a third car leaves him out of that. Chris Buescher won't be able to compete each week for FRM due to obligations in the XFINITY series, where he's running for the championship, but gives him more seat time at tracks he's in need of to move on with his career.

The smiles never stop coming when a driver wins the pole for a NASCAR race. Having the edge come race day and an added confidence level are just some of the perks for being the driver that will start first for an event.

Come Friday’s events for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and XFINITY Series, there will be a new face to greet the pole award winner. Since 2010, Rachel Rupert has been that person, but that will change as a new era begins at Richmond International Raceway.

Traveling the entire schedule for NASCAR’s elite divisions, Rupert has helped celebrate poles, along with waving the green flag for qualifying. Friday’s XFINITY Series qualifying will be the first time that a new woman will be in the fire suit, as her stint in the public eye has ended for a brief moment.

Taking over the role from Rupert, it is Amanda Mertz’s time to shine.

Mertz hails from Louisville, but moved to Nashville, and served as Miss Kentucky in 2012. According to her Miss Universe page, she was formerly a registered nurse prior to becoming a correspondent for a local country music radio station. Since then, opportunities have come about, which has led her to what she calls her “dream job.”

“It is definitely going to be different because I kind of have been a shadow for a couple of months,” Mertz told Speedway Digest. “Even though I found out I was going to become Miss Coors Light a couple of months ago, I haven’t fully taken on the position until now. It is going to be different without Rachel because she and I are such good friends. I am fully prepared, and the team helped me prepare up to this week. I am just excited to embrace the role by myself. Everyone loved and respected Rachel, and I am ready to bring my own twist for NASCAR fans everywhere.”

As she transitioned out of her role, Rupert grew a close bond with Mertz. Shadowing the seasoned Miss Coors Light for the first eight races of the NASCAR season, the rookie has been absorbing as much as she can.

Earning an opportunity to be the face of one of the largest brands in America, Mertz is set to also represent NASCAR. Traveling to every race, she will host guests during race weekends, hand out pole awards, wave the green flag for qualifying sessions and interview drivers. However, there is still a big learning curve for someone that didn’t become seriously involved in following NASCAR until 2011.

“It is definitely going to be different because I kind of have been a shadow for a couple of months,” Murtz explained. “Even though I found out I was going to become Miss Coors Light a couple of months ago, I haven’t fully taken on the position until now. It is going to be different without Rachel because she and I are such good friends.

“I am fully prepared, and the team helped me prepare up to this week. I am just excited to embrace the role by myself. Everyone loved and respected Rachel, and I am ready to bring my own twist for NASCAR fans everywhere.”

While Rupert will still be traveling to some NASCAR events with her husband, Austin Peyton, who is Denny Hamlin’s manager, her final tour as Miss Coors Light came to an end at Bristol. But the two will stay close, as Mertz continuously praised the woman that has opened up the doors for her new path.

“She is literally a pro,” Mertz said. “I have learned so much from her. She did it for four and a half years, so she has a really good relationship with the drivers, the pit crews and everyone involved in the sport. She has really helped me to jump in this and take it on full force without as much nerves as I probably would have had if I didn’t know anyone going into this.”

As Mertz steps into the limelight of the NASCAR realm, she understands the opportunities that this job can create. Former Miss Sprint Cup Kim Coon recently joined the Motor Racing Network (MRN) as a pit road reporter, along with additional coverage via social media. Her colleague, Madison Martin, plans to pursue a career in journalism as well after receiving a degree in communications.

“I think everyone has the opportunity with the position that I have now to venture off to do different things,” she said. “I know Rachel probably has endless possibilities now to do whatever she wants now that she isn’t Miss Coors Light. My goal right now is to be Miss Coors Light for as long as I can. Who knows what is going to happen? I’m excited about right now where I am at this exact moment.”

Going from the four-month interview process to being named Miss Coors Light, Mertz is set to finally take over for Rupert on a full-time basis. She believes that the program is continuing to head in the right direction, with a basis already set and new ideas flowing in.

Being accepted into the NASCAR community will be the next step for Mertz. She has already seen how outstanding fans will be to her, but there are still butterflies now that she will go about her duties without help from Rupert. In order to make the transition as simple as possible – not only for herself but for fans that are adjusted to seeing Rupert as well – she will continue to do many of the procedures in a similar fashion to that of her mentor.

As she prepares for what she knows will be a strenuous job at times, she will be moving to Charlotte next year. With a hope of staying in the industry, she is thinking for the long-term. Currently, she is focused on the task at hand. However, she wants to make a difference in the NASCAR community, and she will step foot on a new era when she enters Richmond.

“I don’t know how we are going to be different, but I am fully prepared to take over the role as Amanda Mertz. I want everyone to miss Rachel and love Rachel’s stuff to do my own thing a little bit, and give it a little twist and make it Amanda Mertz as Miss Coors Light – not just a replacement for Rachel.”

“Nobody has your back like I do.” These were the first words to come out of Denny Hamlin’s mouth after Danica Patrick approached him on pit road following the second Budweiser Duel 150 race on Thursday evening.

Wednesday featured a practice accident between Patrick and Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin. While racing on the backstretch, Hamlin got into her, which sent her to a backup car for the Duel.

But on Thursday night, with pressure to make the Daytona 500, Patrick let her emotions out. On Lap 56, Patrick was inside of the top 10 when she spun out in the center of Turn 3. Hamlin was trailing her at the time – just a few inches behind – and claims he did not touch her. However, she believes otherwise.

“Yesterday when he went to pull down low, it just pulled my bumper around, but it tracked around, I was loose,” Patrick explained in a post-race press conference. “Then it spun and wrecked, we go on to the next car. Something similar happens tonight where I look in my rearview mirror and he's tight up behind me. I can see he's staggered to my left rear, the car gets really light and spins around.”

During the altercation on pit road, Patrick raised her voice and grabbed Hamlin by the collar. Attempting to explain himself, he put his hands on her shoulders in an attempt to calm her down. She told Hamlin that the incident “happened twice, the same person and the same way.”

"No one else is getting close to you,” Hamlin responded. “But, we have to get close to you to get you going forward. To get you going forward, I have to get close to you. I know it got you loose, but I didn't hit you."

The two are neighbors in the motor coach lot, and Patrick said she’s one of his best friends. However, entering a contract year with Stewart-Haas Racing and GoDaddy, missing the Daytona 500 would be considered the apocalypse of her NASCAR career. GoDaddy had to pull her Super Bowl commercial due to a controversy that was sparked from the 30-second marketing campaign, and she was defensive during the Media Tour when asked about her 28th-place finish in points last year.

Following the wreck, her car had minor damage, and she was able to continue for the green-white-checkered finish. Though she nearly lost the pack, teammate Kurt Busch gave her a push and propelled her to 10th place, which was six spots to the good of making it into the “Great American Race.”

“Holy crap, it felt dire,” she said. “This whole scenario is crazy that the series has put us in.  Actually I said yesterday, it's horrible that it's left up to other people and what they can do to you to whether or not you get in the race or not.

“At the end when they told me I need four spots or you need to pass these two cars or you're 18th right now, I was like, Okay, do I have to be desperate basically?  Do I have to pass these cars?  Nobody answered me.  I just said, Screw it, I'm going to be desperate. . . . Luckily it shouldn't go unsaid, Kurt was there for me.  Without Kurt, I wouldn't have finished where I did.”

When everything settled down, Hamlin took his belief to Twitter and said: "On the streets of real life cops always give the ticket to the car behind in a accident. We will use that logic on this one.Folks I watched it back and was in the drivers seat so I know.. I did NOT hit her. BUT I was close, too close obviously."

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